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Late Balloting Impacts Close Assembly Race, Turnout Tally

Late votes by hurricane victims, first-responders won't be counted until tomorrow.

The final chapter on New Jersey’s forced experiment with expanded voting is still being written, with an unknown number of faxed or emailed ballots not set to be counted until late tomorrow.

While those ballots shouldn’t affect any federal contests, the challenger in the race for one of three Assembly seats on the ballot -- in the 16th Legislative District in Central Jersey -- is not conceding because she currently trails by less than 1,700 votes.

And in a twist that is perhaps appropriately bizarre given the changed voting as a result of Hurricane Sandy, the presidential results in Hunterdon County, as reported on the clerk’s website, show negative votes for four of the independent candidates.

If initial tallies are correct, this year’s presidential election drew the smallest number of voters in the state in at least the last four presidential elections. A calculation of data from the county clerks’ results indicates slightly less than 62 percent of the state’s 5.4 million registered voters went to the polls, compared with 73 percent in both 2008 and 2004.

A lower turnout is not surprising, given that storm damage to some peoples’ homes made them consider voting to not be a priority. In addition, damage to and continuing power outages at some polling places left others confused about where to cast their ballots.

Still, turnout could rise considerably when all votes not cast by machine are counted. For the first time ever, some New Jerseyans are being allowed to vote after most of the election results have been tallied, due to the fact that many county clerks were overwhelmed by those seeking to submit a ballot by email or fax. Secretary of State Kim Guadagno has extended the deadline for submitting these ballot until noon tomorrow because of reports that people in some hard hit areas could not get through on the clerks’ busy fax machines. The faxed or emailed ballots were opened up to those who were displaced by Sandy and unable to get to the polls.

As of yesterday, only eight of the counties had enumerated mail-in ballots cast – nearly 89,000 – as part of their total turnout figures. Of the five counties for which comparable data was available for the 2008 presidential election, only Cape May reported a higher number of mail-in ballots this year than four years ago, 5,633 compared with 4,900 in 2008. Gloucester, Hunterdon, Monmouth and Ocean all counted more mail-in ballots four years ago than this year. But those numbers should change as additional ballots are cast and counted in those counties. And other counties, such as Essex, are expected to have large numbers of additional mail-in ballots to count.

“County election offices are continuing to process electronic and provisional ballots,” said Ernie Landante, a spokesman for Guadagno. “This will take some time. We may have a clearer picture on the number of ballots received some point next week.”

While allowing people to submit ballots days after the polls have closed and regular results have been counted is unusual, so were the circumstances created by Sandy.

“We simply want to ensure that New Jerseyans displaced by the storm and first responders are not disenfranchised and have access to a ballot,” Landante said. “Thousands of New Jerseyans have been displaced from their homes, while many others have lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy. They shouldn't lose their right to vote too.”

Those ballots are not likely to change the results in any of the congressional elections, the closest of which was 9 points for Rep. Jon Runyan, R-3rd, in his defeat of Shelley Adler. But they have given Democrat Marie Corfield hope in her attempt to unseat Assemblywoman Donna Simon, the Republican appointed to the 16th district seat to fill a vacancy earlier this year.

Corfield, a teacher known for confronting Gov. Chris Christie at a town hall meeting over what she saw as his anti-teacher positions, currently trails Simon by 1,668 votes. In a post on the Citizens for Marie Corfield website, she proclaimed the race to be “far from over” as she thanked supporters.

“We do not know what the next couple of days – or weeks – will bring, so keep good thoughts, stay positive, and rest assured that we will do our best to make sure every vote is counted,” Corfield wrote.

Counting all votes for president in Hunterdon County hit a snag. The county clerk’s election results website lists negative vote totals for candidates RJ Harris, Virgil Goode, Tom Miller and Peta Lindsay, who either led or trailed with -19 votes.

Mary Melfi, Hunterdon’s clerk, said she is not sure what happened to bring about those results, though the numbers seem to be related to some of the mail-in ballots received.

“I have never seen an election like this,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is. It could be the machine didn’t read the ballots.”

Melfi said she is checking into the negative votes.

Guadagno’s office posted unofficial results and counted those negative votes as positive votes cast for the candidates. Doing that, however, means the individual votes do not add up to the total.

Landante said no votes are official until they have been certified by the county board of canvassers, and he is confident that will clear up the question.

Once the results of the second statewide ballot question have been certified, the state plans to impose on judges the same higher payments for pensions and health benefits that other public employees already have been making. That question proved to be even more popular than the higher education bond act, getting support from more than 83 percent of voters, including a majority in every county.

“This is good, fair, even-handed public policy, something New Jersey voters obviously recognized by a wide margin,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, who like legislators of both parties was outraged by the state Supreme Court decision that the state constitution prevented the state from making judges pay more for their benefits. “We are gratified by the public’s overwhelming support for the constitutional amendment.”

The approval by 62 percent of voters of the bond question authorizes the state to spend $750 million on academic facilities at the county and public four-year colleges and universities, and at most private colleges, as well. Because the facilities need to partially match the bond money, it will mean a $1 billion investment in construction work. The next step is to create and approve a list of priority projects.

Colleen O'Dea is an editor at large for NJ Spotlight

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